I’ve been away from blogging nearly two years, and it’s time I made the effort again. My illness in 2014 and my recovery period rather upset the rhythm, and I got lazy about taking it up again.
Anyway, it seems that some of the congregations I visit during vacancies are interested in some of my sermons being given a wider accessibility, so here is what I said on Sunday, when we celebrated the feast of the Presentation:
The story of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple is characteristic of Luke’s generally serene and uplifting tone. Joseph and Mary travel to Jerusalem in the confidence that they are doing the correct thing required by the Law of God in presenting their child in the Temple and carrying out the required rituals.
– Simeon has lived all his life looking forward with quiet trust to the time when the faith of Israel will be vindicated, and the Messiah will appear to inaugurate God’s rule. We meet him at the very moment when his hope is justified, when he finally knows that salvation is at hand, and that he can depart this life in peace.
– Finally, the narrative of the return to Galilee speaks of a family settling down to a happy and fulfilled home-life in ‘their own town’, where, we may infer, they are known and respected: ‘The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him’ (2.40).
This picture of peace, growth and fulfilment depicts not only an ideal of domestic harmony, but it is close to shalom, the essential characteristic of the Kingdom of God as described throughout both the OT and the NT.
And yet…and yet…
– Luke’s optimism is always tempered by a healthy dash of realism. The child Jesus, as he reaches maturity, will of course cause the ‘rising’ of many of those he encounters, i.e., will heal their wounds, liberate them from guilt, and open up hitherto unseen vistas of new possibilities, of a different kind of life.
– But he is also destined for the ‘falling’ of many. He will be ‘a sign that will be opposed’ (2.34). The tranquil life of his home in Nazareth will be shattered by his determination to follow his destiny, even to death.
– A sword will pierce the soul of his parents, especially his mother; his family will be bewildered and hurt by his behaviour, to the point where they will seek to restrain him and obstruct his mission.
– During his public ministry, his teaching, and, above all, what he does and what he is will challenge those who are comfortably settled in their conventional ways. The religious establishment will be outraged by his easy-going approach to Sabbath observance, ritual purity and social hierarchies. And they will resent being jerked out of their comfort zones to the point where they will kill the bearer of the Good News.
All through his public ministry, Jesus failed, for the most part, to convince his followers that discipleship was costly, and, especially, that his mission would lead to his death.
– Peter, vehemently denying that this would happen, was sharply put in his place with the rebuke, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’.
– Arguably, one of the ironies in the NT is that possibly the only person who really understood the demands of discipleship was the rich young man who came to Jesus seeking to know what he was required to do, but went away sorrowful because he was unwilling to accept that if he took Jesus’s invitation seriously, he would have to change, and change to the point where his wealth ceased to be his personal possession, but became the means of compassionate service of the poor.
Many of us, like that young man, understand the demands of discipleship all too well.
– How far do we embrace them?
– Or do we, too, turn aside sorrowful?
– We are called to follow the gospel in the first instance in the circumstances in which we are placed. Nevertheless, the stark, uncompromising challenge remains.
– If we truly respond to Christ’s call, we cannot set prior limits to our response, cannot make the mental reservation that we will follow him only so long as he doesn’t unsettle us and lead us where we don’t wish to go.
One person who knew all about the cost of discipleship was the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Before he died, he wrote these words about discipleship: ‘It is nothing else than bondage to Jesus Christ alone, completely breaking through every programme, every set of laws…Beside Jesus nothing has any significance. He alone matters’.
The babe in arms taken to the Temple rightly conjures up a reassuring image of vulnerability, tenderness and love.
But Jesus cannot be domesticated.
– As Rowan Williams has wittily expressed it, ‘God becomes our last and best alibi for not being disturbed.…The tightly swaddled baby is a gift-wrapped object, passive and docile for use in our business, our transactions; a lucky mascot; the sleeping partner in the firm’.
– But Jesus comes to offer not only what Simeon recognised as ‘the consolation of Israel’, but also to challenge us, to shake us out of our complacent, off-the-shelf religious ideas and practices. As Malachi reminds us, with his violent imagery of cleansing fire, ‘who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’
Most of us can say, without a trace of dishonesty: ‘This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made’. But there will be times when our souls are pierced by a sword:
– when betrayal by a friend whom we trusted shakes our faith in human nature;
– when the prevalence of violence and injustice in the world tempts us to despair;
– when we are faced with situations where the only ethical and Christian thing to do is to give up something we hold dear (a deep-seated prejudice, a job, a relationship).
The story of the Presentation in the Temple offers us the reassurance that if we respond to Jesus’ call, we will see salvation, and be a light to lighten the nations and to give glory to God’s people.